“If the Royal Variety Show was put in a matter transportation machine with the Royal Institution Christmas lectures, this is what you’d get.”
Robin Ince is a comedian you might recognise as the co-presenter of BBC Radio’s The Infinite Monkey Cage with physicist Brian Cox—he’s also the creator of stage-show and author of The Bad Book Club: One Man’s Quest to Uncover the Books That Taste Forgot and the creator of the Australian feature movie Razzle Dazzle.
I spoke to him after he returned from Alom Shaha’s book launch for The Young Atheist’s Handbook, about science, comedy and how he brings them together to make shows like Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, and his most recent tour, Happiness Through Science.
Kylie Sturgess: What first got you started in comedy?
Robin Ince: A think it was something from a long time ago, as a child—like all children—I liked things from my generation: The Goodies, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. When I was about ten years old, the alternative comedy scene began in the UK, which was originally Alexei Sayle, and Rik Mayall. I found it a very exciting thing as an eleven-year old to see this very vibrant, physical, and energetic comedy. I became quite obsessed at that point: from then on my schoolbooks often featured the logos of bands, etc. I would use the logos and opening credit sequences of comedy shows, television, and radio. That was it really—then, around the age of fifteen I started going to comedy clubs in London and just watching.
I knew from a very early age, once I stopped wanting to be a zookeeper, I wanted to be some kind of writer, or possibly some kind of performer. The alternative comedy scene did seem incredible; I suppose for me it was kind of like punk, because I was a little bit too young for punk. This anarchic, politically crazed comedy was the thing that got me into it. Actually, I did a gig with Ben Elton about a month ago in London and he really couldn't believe that some comedians wander on and kind of don't know exactly what they're going to say, which is very interesting because I think it, in one way, is quite old school. I was always a big fan of his in the 1980s.
That was the first thing I found fascinating about stand up, was when I would go and see stand up comedians and the first time…I think this is true for many audiences: you kind of make yourself believe that the comedians are making it all up as they stand there. And when you go and see it a second time, you go, “Oh, no. The words are all the same. They even make the same off-the-cuff comment about that bloke in the left hand side of the stage!” So that was quite an interesting wake up, I suppose!
Sturgess: You’ve clearly always been a comedy enthusiast—have you also always been a science enthusiast?
Ince: Well, I went off science for a while. I was very enthusiastic about science when I was young—again, like most children. I always use that quote by Carl Sagan: “All children are born natural scientists and then they have it beat out of them.” And I think that's what happened to me at about the age of thirteen—suddenly physics was being taught in a tremendously dull manner.
It seemed, at least for most of the science teachers I had, that science kind of had nothing to do with the world—which I always find an amazing trick that can happen in the education system, where something that is about the entirety of everything that we do every single day suddenly becomes just a selection of experiments which are disembodied from the world.
And so, I went off science and then in my twenties I started getting excited and interested again. I started reading. I think I read Richard Dawkins's Blind Watchmaker and the first thing that really got me back into it was James Randi's Skeptical Investigator book. That then got me into the skeptic movement…which then got me into reading Carl Sagan again. And slowly, the excitement of everything that was in the universe kind of caught up with me once again.
Sturgess: What do you think has given science its recent boost in popularity? For example, The Geek Manifesto by Mark Henderson suggests it's tied into a need for greater political activism in that regard and comedy and pop culture obviously plays a part. Do you see it differently?
Ince: Well, I think it's fairly hard…I don't think it's possible to actually go down to one thing and say, “This is what has made science so popular.” When you see the size of audiences at some of the biggest shows that I've got on with friends of mine, it's a very broad audience out there. And certainly things like the shows of Brian Cox shows that you have a really broad TV audience, as well.
I think there are lots of things that have come together. My personal feeling is that the mass media has become increasingly trite. The stories within it are banal. The celebrity obsession; the level of emptiness, which is being thrust at us from television and from the news media. I think people suddenly wanted more. A certain group of people certainly wanted more: they felt that they were getting nothing from what had previously been the quality press and quality television.
I think then you've also got things like the sequencing of the human genome—that is something that can capture the imagination. The idea of us beginning to understand the code that makes each one of us this selfconscious individual that we are and the fact that they have got to the early stages of sequencing that. Now we've just got to work out exactly what all the letters mean!
I think someone once described it as saying, “Right, we've found all the letters now that make the book “Crime and Punishment”—we've just got to put them in the right order.” I think that’s exciting! Also, think about things like CERN and the Large Hadron Collider. Even though people are not really that certain what it means if we find the particle that may be the reason everything has mass, when you look at the architecture of something like the LHC, there is a tremendous level of awe. The space race gave us—children at the time—the same incredible sense of awe. Even now when I see anything being launched into space there is a certain kind of tingle that you get!
So I think there are those things. I think, also, there are the anti-science elements. I think things like a lot of the new age bamboozling bits of rubbish; the attempted rise of intelligent design/creationism has fired people up not to be led down that route back into the dark ages.
So I think all of that. Also, to reference Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, I think the atheist side of things comes into it. I also think the work of Brian Cox, certainly in the United Kingdom, has really captured the imagination as well. So I think many things have come together.
And who knows? It may well actually be the benevolent move by the media to become tremendously banal that has led to a rise in the desire to know about the world!
Sturgess: It'd be great to think that the rise of popularity of science in pop culture leads to scientific literacy, as well.
Ince: In terms of pop-science books now, there are an incredible number of scientists who are getting better and better at conveying comprehensible messages to the public. I think one of the hardest things for a general population is that science has a kind of delayed gratification.
You can look at a painting or a film and have an immediate reaction. If you are trying to understand some idea about particle physics or about Planck time, whatever it may be, it takes a while. You're not going to get an immediate reward. You have to do a lot of reading and thinking and looking up at the sky and trying to comprehend what you've taken in before you then get the reward of going, “Ah, I have some understanding.”
I think in the culture that we have at the moment, which is a very sound-bite culture, it means there is a certain amount of re-education and rewiring of our own brains.
Also, by the way, going back to a previous question, I think the Internet has played an enormous role in terms of that we can now have this communication and the people like skeptics and the outsider kids, as well! You could be in a town, a small town, and feel like you're the only one. This level of connection, I think, has played a great part in it, as well.
But overall, yes. I think people are realizing that there's a reason. It's bit like over here. We had a big campaign about homeopathy revealing the homeopathy farce.
Sturgess: Yes, I run a skeptical group and was the “overdose” organizer in my hometown, and then I went to QEDCon in order to celebrate the 10:23 campaign over there, too.
Ince: Oh, fantastic. What did you OD on?
Sturgess: We just went to our local chemists and bought up the entire shelf of what they had there and did it in front of their shop! And over in Berlin, for the recent World Skeptics Congress, they gave each one of the presenters their very own lucky vial of homeopathic treatment of Berlin Wall!
Ince: Oh, those ideas are just great! It's fascinating, because I think a lot of people in the public generally don’t realize what homeopathic remedies are. In fact, I didn't until a few years ago. I just presumed they were some kind of herbal remedy. Very few people know that they're basically sugar pills.
I think that's another way that you tap into people, is when you get into their own personal life, which is once you feel that you're going, “Hang on. I've paid $12 for this tiny little thing that is full of just sugar pills?”
And once you say to them, “Well, it may well even help your pocket, understanding the world.” If you have a comprehension of how you're being ripped off, you can go, “Ah, I need to know how I'm being bamboozled.” I think that plays a part, as well.
I do think that yes, scientific literacy is something great – the most exciting thing is we had a kind of history boom here about ten years ago, with a lot of shows, popular history shows. And it caught the imagination of people. And then, these kinds of things drift off and they stop being featured on the big table at the front of the bookshop.
But I think what's exciting about the science boom at the moment is because there are lots of quite young kids getting into it, as well, that's something that's not going to disappear. Suddenly we are seeing, certainly in the United Kingdom, we're seeing an enormous uptake in people getting physics degrees at the moment. And in a lot of the shows that I'm involved with, we have ten, eleven, twelve year olds coming.
So what I think is exciting is they hopefully will grow up and stick with it. If you put the seed in there early enough, they're not going to go: “Oh, that's the science fad over and done with”—much in the same way that many people were inspired by Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Hopefully, I hope the same thing is going to happen with many of the popular science programs that are around.
Sturgess: I also think that it's important not just to get into science but If you have the interest and inclination to become science communicators. I think it's most unfair that you’ve described yourself as “the passionate idiot who is the vessel between the audience and the science popularizers!”
Ince: Well, I do care. I genuinely do. It probably sounds disingenuous. Once I've started to realize how little I knew, that kind of Socratic moment that may well occur, I looked at my face and realized how little I knew!
I think that helps in terms of communication because when we have on the radio shows that I do with Brian, “The Infinite Monkey Cage,” there are a lot of very big ideas which I really don't understand.
As you know, once you start really getting into science you suddenly go: “Wow, I will die with a wealth of knowledge absent from my brain; I will never understand some things.” I think that because I can be honest and say this very little I know, I can acknowledge that I'm just trying to find out as much as possible before I die.
That can help to be the vehicle for other people, like me, who are interested but may well not know the terms. This is one of the things that is involved with any kind of language. With the language of science, sometimes people are embarrassed to get involved in it in the first place because they realize the level of stupidity that they have.
I'm going to be honest with you, when you meet a scientist you think, “I know almost nothing, but this is roughly what I know about this.” And if you’re lucky, they can look at you and go: “Well, you don't know very much. But I'll take you on a little bit of a journey.”
Sturgess: And the journey can be absolutely wonderful as you show within the work that you do. What about being a skeptic—do you think that's a label that still has too much baggage?
Ince: Well, the thing is it's so confusing because there are so many labels that we can have, depending on your position. Some are secularists and skeptics and atheists and it goes on and on.
I think what's good about the skeptic community recently is that there was a time where quite a few years ago I suppose where suddenly it just seemed it was mainly psychic mediums, Loch Ness, Bigfoot, and all of those things; general bits of nonsense that are fun to debunk. But whether that really has much point anymore—the trouble with psychic mediums is it doesn't matter how many times we can reveal that a psychic is a charlatan, reveal their methods, etc., it doesn't seem to ultimately have an effect on the number of people they can play to.
I think now that the skeptic movement has managed to engage with more and more general science and realized that the real tools to give people are not the smaller ideas, like just having a look at how psychics work, but rather the bigger ideas, such as having a look at the universe as a whole.
I think that sometimes as skeptics we can be just a little bit like: “Nowadays it's pathetic, isn't it, all these people who believe in psychic mediums….” But the first thing we have to realize is that the way that people's brains are wired means that we all have a possibility of being wooed by the nonsensical.
We need to be judgmental of those who are like the psychic mediums, etc., but not judgmental of their audience. I think the skeptic movement has really broadened out increasingly with trying to give people the tools to understand whether they are being bullshitted or not.
Sturgess: I have another quote by you, which I think is a wonderful one: “You're not going to woo people by attacking what they believe in. You woo people by showing them something more exciting and more interesting.” Now that must be very difficult to maintain at times, I think, but still very valuable.
Ince: I think sometimes you can just have fun being facetious. There's no reason not to. Some of the engagements that I have with climate change deniers!
When you are at the level of journalists who are enjoying their contrarian position, just these rather unpleasant showoffs who are like men doing a little dance for their mother… they're all ghastly people. Then you can speak facetiously because they're not interested in knowing anything else apart from sitting in their very dogmatic and profitable position.
But I think overall when we're dealing with day-to-day people who may well have been misinformed: that’s different. If you're dealing with someone who is a creationist or believes in intelligent design—for many people the reason they believe in it is merely because they have been fed a lot of nonsense: there are no transitional fossils; the eye is too complicated; the flagellum; and so on. And there you do get a chance of telling them tremendously exciting stories about this long journey to selfconscious life that has happened.
You can first of all say, “Well, you've been in some ways misled by some of the facts you've been given.” But I think you can also start to tell them these wonderful narratives, this very slow process that has led to the creature that is wired as it is. I think that's going to be much better than merely laughing in their face.
But, as I said, there are certain people where laughing in their faces is the best weapon. I made fun of one of the climate change denier journalists over here and he gets very uppity and he's very upset by it. Someone like Christopher Hitchens is a good contrarian—he realized that part of being a contrarian was you have to take a lot of shit from other people as well and take it on the chin. And unfortunately a lot of the right wing contrarians, certainly in the United Kingdom, are also very thin skinned. So they like being a contrarian until someone then makes fun of them. And then they go, “That's really unfair. I'm going to sue!”—which is great fun.
Sturgess: You are currently touring with a show called Happiness Through Science. Where can people go to find out more about it?
Ince: I think I've got a website. I really should make it a more active website. The Happiness Through Science tour is the longest tour I've ever done. I normally do four different tours a year, but this one I'm doing for a whole year. It's the most fun I've ever had; here’s another Carl Sagan quote, when he talked about science once and imparting information, he said, “When you are in love, you want to tell everyone.” I have to admit that I find it’s that, with the Happiness Through Science show; it’s something that I would love to bring to Australia.
It's not in any way a parochial show; it deals, in very broad strokes, with a lot of ideas. Again, I just find it exciting. Pretty much every single night, someone from the audience afterwards in the bar will say, “Do you know that idea you were talking about earlier? There is a new paper that may well advance the comedy routine, you see, you have actually misunderstood the idea of the olfactory receptor there. We realize you have done it for the purpose of the joke. But we believe…,” and so on and so on—all these wonderful bits of feedback that you get!
Then, people write in and say, “Which Richard Feynman book were you reading from?” And knowing that people will then go out and buy a Richard Feynman book, just based on a bloke jumping around on stage and occasionally quoting from Feynman, is wonderful—I always count myself as a reading list comedian! My shows are generally about talking for two and a half hours, being very excited about things that you should be excited about too.
Robin Ince’s site can be found at www.robinince.com.